Dateline: April 4th, Holy Saturday, Scammon Bay, Alaska

Back in 2000, while making my annual eight-day silent retreat, I found myself called/invited to offer my pastoral services to the Yup’ik eskimo villages along the Bering Seacoast of southwest Alaska. I’d been a Jesuit Volunteer in one of those villages way back in 1981-1982, the year between my graduation from Holy Cross and entrance into the New England Jesuit Province. 2000 to 2010 found me making annual, and sometimes semi-annual, trips to the region, but my move from Boston College (a Catholic instiution taking several days off around Easter) to Vanderbilt University (only Good Friday off) has prevented me from getting away for the nine days or so to assure service from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday (one must account for weather conditions delaying flights, as the villages’ airstrips accommodate only small planes, mostly eight-or-ten-seaters, depending on how much freight is added in). Currently in a visiting chair at Fordham University, I’ve been able to get away this Holy Week and Easter to Scammon Bay (pop. 474, 96% Yup’ik, 49% age 18 and younger, of whom 49% live below the poverty line).

Scammon Bay, Palm Sunday
Palm Sunday afternoon, Scammon Bay

All of this is to give background for the context of my presiding over the Paschal Triduum services in a place where nearly all, except for a few of the eldest, are variably conversant in English, while efforts are in the school and homes to keep the Yup’ik language alive among the people. The primary purpose of this present Pray Tell posting is to comment on language, as I just cannot resist, despite the unpleasant awareness that I’m delivering what amounts to a lament, a plaint. While I have for the past couple years done by best to make peace with the current English translation of the Roman Missal, yesterday’s Good Friday service brought me to my breaking point. (A note of clarification: Not being a pastor, I’d not until yesterday had the opportunity to preside at Good Friday using the new translation.)

The collects, frankly, were unintelligible and nearly impossible to articulate coherently. But what I found especially dispiriting were the Solemn Intercessions. These, over the years, I have found to be a most vital element of the entire service. Indeed, my brief homily for the Good Friday service always is a matter of acknowledging how the proclamation of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant and then the Passion according to St. John are best allowed to “speak for themselves” to each participant in the assembly (better said, the Spirit speaking through them in each person). I use the brief homily to explain the Solemn Intercessions as the church’s, and thus our, response to the overwhelming merciful love of God toward a sinful and suffering world: We the baptized, contemplating Jesus’ abandonment, torture and execution as his love unto death, respond by bringing to the God he has thus revealed to us the needs of all humanity, all the world. The ten intercessions reach out in concentric circles from the Catholic Church, with its leaders and all members, to all Christians, to the Jewish people, to all who believe in God (tacitly, Muslims and others), to atheists, to those in public office (I explain why, in terms of the common good), and to all in special need (sick, imprisoned, etc.). To do this well, I have found, requires this overview-cum-exhortation in the short homily, an invitation to enter this living (and therefore, always evolving) ancient tradition of prayer as the revelation of the boundless mercy and love of God to which we have been joined by the baptism we shall witness and/or renew a night from now. We are the assembled body of the Christ given for the life of the world, interceding for the world.

Community Assembling, Good Friday
Assembling for the Good Friday Service

Myself (and I can only speak for myself, out of my pastoral experience of many years, both in southwest Alaska but also, some years, in Massachusetts and Vermont parishes), I had found the simplicity, the straight-forward translation of the Solemn Intercessions in the 1975 Sacramentary effective. I have always invited the assembly to join me in kneeling throughout (rather than the distracting and cumbersome standing and kneeling for each step of silent and then collected prayer); and in so doing, I’d experience repeatedly assemblies focused in intense silences of prayer. I had found easily singable the music for chanting the invitations to prayer (the “real” prayer, after all, as with all collects, being the silence in which the Spirit moves each to pray in one’s own words and images) and then the presider’s collecting of all the assembly’s prayer in the formal oration (concluded by their affirming response, “Amen”).

Yesterday evening, to my dismay, I felt robbed of — or at least hobbled in — it all. The invitations to prayer, as well as the subsequent prayers, were a jumble of largely incomprehensible words and highly evasive images (one would need to know a lot — a LOT — of academic and sophisticated biblical theology to grasp much of the content as it is now conveyed in the English text). The music of the chant I also found awkward and uninspiring (although I readily admit that there must have been much work and debate that went into the final redaction of that music a few years ago).

Assembling for Good Friday
Blessed Sacrament community, Scammon Bay

I sincerely hope that, now in my middle fifties, I’ve not simply devolved into a middle-aged man ruing change foisted on liturgical/prayer practices that had become customary to me. But yesterday I found myself laboring with greater effort than in previous years to help a people for whom command of the English language largely is limited (this in no way being a reflection on intelligence but, rather, on culture and context and history of a still-colonized people), a local church community whose demographics (as noted at the outset, above) are nearly half under age 18. And lest one might consider the local liturgical assemblies in the rest of the USA more linguistically sophisticated, I can only add that twenty-some years of priestly service has gradually taught me how readily the words of prayer texts but, even worse, the purpose of the given form of prayer in the given rite, can glide right past the majority of the assembled. Just ask folks what the content of the Eucharist Prayer includes. Yes, attention to academic ritual theory demonstrates how semiotic, how pre-discursive most of our liturgical activity is in the real body-persons participating, but the obfuscation of the words of the prayer texts–and the clericalism that is, after all and in the end, at the heart of these miserable English translations–serve no good pastoral purpose in the liturgy.

I have tried to hold my tongue on this for a couple years now, but this lament comes out from my spirit on Holy Saturday. True, the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead was active, blowing as she will, in the spirits of all assembled yesterday evening in our little Scammon Bay community. Yes, I found the people silently intent in their prayer during the Solemn Intercessions or, perhaps at least, respectful of what the priest was trying to do. In any event, in this post I hope some readers might find a glimpse into the church at one edge of the North American continent, as well as into the heart or soul of a veteran pastoral minister struggling with the Missal text in service to the church’s liturgical tradition.

Bruce, Scammon Bay
Bruce walking in Scammon Bay

8 comments

  1. For me, the problem with the Good Friday intercessions in their new version is that the convoluted and klunky syntax needs a lot of work to articulate well when spoken, and is very difficult if not impossible to convey when using the chant in addition. Comprehensible as it may be on the printed page, to the listener it is a very different thing.

    We need to cast aside our advanced degrees and start thinking in terms of semiotics — how ordinary people perceive things. It is very apparent after several years of use that the Missal does contain large amounts of verbiage. The blessing of water at the Easter Vigil is a good example of a text that has had all the poetry removed from it.

  2. I was at the Vigil last night where the presider and many in the assembly were not first-language English speakers. The readings were well-prepared and beautifully proclaimed. The text of Eucharistic Prayer I, however, proved too much of a stumbling block for the presider, and everything began to sag. No wonder it’s almost never used.

  3. While not asking for it…Thank you Fr. for going to the people physically and symbolically. Scammon Bay is one of those places where “you can’t get there from here.” The other thank you is for taking the time to address the very confusing pacing, tempo, and sentence structure for people who do not live anywhere near that reality. To take the texts and acknowledge a change was needed is what was needed. …not only by humans but probably God.

    Most people I work with who may read your story may not sympathize with your need to address this issue but would probably ask, “can we get the kind of pews they have in Scammon Bay?”

    Next year when you go back, they should do a Discovery Channel series on you as the one person in Alaska trying not to remove gold, crab or trees.

    Thank you Father.

  4. They gave us a crib sheet listing who we were praying for. I found it helpful. WHAT we were praying was tricky, but at least we knew WHO we were praying for. It’s a sad comment, but that’s what we’ve been reduced to. Thanks for sharing your experiences in Alaska, Bruce.

    I’d also like to second Paul Inwood’s observation about the Blessing of Water. Most curiously wooden and unmusical.

  5. Didn’t one of those Good Friday prayers mention all who exercised a ministry? I used to include musicians there. Now it seems all clericalised.
    Maybe my memory is playing tricks.

  6. Why not follow the good example of those old Anglo-Catholic priests who incorporated elements of the missal into the rather sober prayer book service, and this they did with a real possibility of incarceration. Poor Fr. Tooth comes to mind in this regard.

    Yes, the Anglican Patrimony does have more benefits than Pope Benedict ever realized.

    (Bravo for your excellent work!)

  7. I STILL SAY that canon law has to be interpreted and that a fundmentalist anglo-saxon approach does not do justice to the place of law in the Church.
    My old canon law prof…the late great Dick Hill, SJ, says the superiors of his province one got a directive from a provincial who said “AND I DO NOT WANT THIS ‘INTERPRETED’…so he was telling them he did not want it applied to the concrete situation so the superiors tossed the directive in the trash. Something in the law, for the sake of the good of souls has to be done so that these folks do not have this situation imposed on them. Why send someone to impose somethihg that not even the one who was sent to impose it can understand why. The law against a priest changing things is a law meant to prevent whims of a priest dominating. Obviously this is not the case.

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